Two old South Austin neighborhoods are readying for war with City Hall over the draft CodeNext zoning maps rolled out last week.
“It’s about as subtle as a wrecking ball,” said Cory Walton, the president of the Bouldin Creek Neighborhood Association, who has lived in the neighborhood for two decades. “The changes in Bouldin are pretty devastating.”
His opposite number in the South River City Citizens Neighborhood Association, which includes Travis Heights, agreed.
“I’m concerned about the effect this would have on our neighborhood’s character and our existing historic housing,” said Gretchen Otto, the group’s president. “I’m concerned that developers are going to come in hot.”
The proposed zoning changes won’t allow towers or bring in block-sized multistory apartment complexes, because the proposal includes a two-story cap across almost all of Bouldin Creek and Travis Heights. But, in more subtle ways, CodeNext’s changes could dramatically alter the character of these neighborhoods, long defined by bungalows and manicured yards, by allowing construction of smaller multifamily complexes and denser development overall.
“Bouldin Creek and Travis Heights are proposed for very significant changes, based on the draft maps,” said Council Member Kathie Tovo, whose District 9 includes both neighborhoods.
It shouldn’t be surprising that Travis Heights and Bouldin Creek would take center stage. The neighborhoods are just across the river from downtown and either span or are near three major city thoroughfares: South Congress Avenue, South First Street and South Lamar Boulevard. Yet single family homes can be found less than a block from these main drags, making the areas prime targets for more densely packed development.
City planners applied the proposed “transect” zoning scheme to broad swaths of both neighborhoods. It’s a prescriptive system aimed at promoting denser development along key corridors and in the city’s core — and then integrating it into existing nearby neighborhoods. Not all transect zones call for dense development, but the ones applied to parts of these neighborhoods near major streets allow for density beyond what the current, traditional zoning allows.
Density, preservation goals at odds
The looming clash reflects the city’s twin desire to encourage density in its core and along key transit corridors while preserving its neighborhoods. The city’s long-term growth plan, Imagine Austin, effectively calls for both.
“One of the things we have committed to the public is that CodeNext would follow some of the goals of Imagine Austin and that both of those processes would value and work from the neighborhood plans,” Tovo said. “I don’t see evidence that was true for Bouldin Creek and Travis Heights, especially.”
Those plans for both call for maintaining single-family cores of both neighborhoods, even within a block of those major streets in many cases.
“If you look at what’s on the ground there today, with the current entitlements, we are not able to build affordable homes. It’s simply impossible,” said Greg Anderson, a longtime urbanist and affordable housing advocate, who now works at Austin Habitat for Humanity. “We can’t preserve our way out of this affordable housing crisis.”
Finding more housing is a city policy priority. The City Council’s recently passed housing “blueprint” calls for building 13,500 units a year to house Austin’s booming population, as the city grows by an estimated 20,000 to 25,000 people annually.
The “blueprint” included adopting CodeNext as one of its more than 50 suggestions to speed housing development and improve affordability in Austin. The city staff rolled out the text of the now $6.2 million land-use regulation rewrite in January. The City Council is expected to vote on the measure in early 2018, with hearings and debates scheduled throughout the rest of this year.
A story of rapid change
While the Bouldin and Travis Heights neighborhoods have had success in holding off efforts for greater density, gentrification is another matter entirely.
A drive though the winding streets of Travis Heights tells the tale: On one stretch of East Live Oak Street, a modern six-unit condo complex sits across the street from a single-family home built in 1926, which is next door to a construction site where a house built in 1949 once resided. A mile north sits a turn-of-the-century classic on the corner of Academy Drive and Hillside Avenue; one door down is a modern mansion with wood siding and massive glass windows that wouldn’t feel out of place overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
On seemingly every block in between, modern homes sit next to the sort of prewar bungalows they replaced. The Porsches, Audis and BMWs of the newcomers sit in stark contrast to the Toyotas, Fords and aging Volvos of longtime residents.
The numbers confirm the story of rapid change, an American-Statesman analysis found. City officials issued 660 demolition permits for residential properties in south Central Austin neighborhoods — including Bouldin and Travis Heights — from 2012 through 2016, including 161 in 2015 alone.
That’s nearly double the 355 issued over the preceding five year period, from 2007 through 2011.
Housing costs in these neighborhoods have soared, too. The median price for a single-family home in the south Central Austin neighborhoods for 2017 through March hit $670,000, up almost 20 percent from the year before, figures from the Austin Board of Realtors show. A 1933-vintage, three-bedroom renovated bungalow on Le Grande Avenue was listed for $815,000.
“Tear-downs isn’t a zoning issue. It’s already happening,” Anderson said. “If you take one of these lots and you raze it and build new homes on it, you’re limited to only building one or two new homes, and we know what we’re going to get. We’re going to get really expensive homes on those lots.”
The density alternative
Urbanists like Anderson argue that denser development helps to lower housing prices, at least on a relative basis. Instead of a tear-down resulting in one huge $1 million house, what if a fourplex of $350,000 smaller condos was built, or an eightplex of $200,000 units?
“These are neighborhoods that are impenetrable to new affordable housing,” Anderson said. “We can’t be afraid of new neighbors. Neighbors make the neighborhood.”
It might not be cheap, but it is cheaper — and that, to folks like Walton, misses the point — potentially at the costs of the place he loves.
“Is that the missing middle? Is that affordability? I don’t think so,” Walton said. “Plus, in the process, you’re totally destroying the historic character of one of Austin’s most cherished neighborhoods.”
Instead, Walton and Otto would like to see additional efforts for preservation in their neighborhoods, which would make it tougher to tear down structures. Affordability, they said, could come from current homeowners adding accessory dwelling units, so-called granny flats, to their property.
“I believe that protecting our historical structures trumps everybody moving to Austin being able to live wherever they want,” Otto said. “There are plenty of places that could be made denser without the loss of the historical fabric of our community.”
What’s next on CodeNext
Residents can view the proposed zoning maps at austintexas.gov/codenext. The City Council is expected to vote on the new land use rules in early 2018, with hearings and debates scheduled throughout the rest of this year. Upcoming district-specific hearings on the maps include:
• District 10 open house, 2-4 p.m. Saturday at Anderson High School, 8403 Mesa Drive
• District 1 open house, 1-3 p.m. May 13 at LBJ Early College High School, 7309 Lazy Creek Drive
• District 8 open house, 6-7:30 p.m. May 16 at Austin Community College, Pinnacle Campus, 7748 U.S. 290
• District 2 open house, 6:30-8:30 p.m. May 23 at Mendez Middle School, 5106 Village Square Drive
Locations have not been finalized for meetings in Districts 4, 5 and 7.